Letter from Sofia

«You communists must be really weird!» I once told my old-time Bulgarian friend Angel Wagenstein – more of an author than a politician and a diplomat, positions he has also held – pointing at the statue of Czar Alexander II, ruler of Russia from 1855 to 1881, facing the National Assembly in downtown Sofia. «Now, how is it that a pre-revolutionary czar – moreover, the one who sold Alaska to the USA – is now being honored in a communist country, in such a prominent spot?» That was still in the «bad old socialist days» when the whole country was dotted with monuments to partisans, Soviet «liberators,» representatives of the working class and collective farmers. Then, I often used to visit Wagenstein’s family, residing in Moskofska Street, just off Ruski Boulevard in the center of the Bulgarian capital. «Where do we live?» he asked. «Moskofska Street, just behind the Russian Church, don’t you?» I countered. «You see, this street was always called that. Even during the war, when the German Nazis were our allies, no one would have dared to change that name. That goes for Ruski Boulevard too. Russia – note, not the Soviet Union, Russia – has always been very, very close to Bulgaria. We speak similar languages, we share the Cyrillic alphabet. During both world wars we might have sided with Germany, but could never bring ourselves to declare war on the Soviet Union. And this particular Russian, Czar Alexander II, is a national hero for us: He freed the Bulgarians from five centuries of Turkish rule, at a cost of 200,000 Russian lives. Many Bulgarians still call him, secretly, Czar Osvoboditel (the Liberator). That was in 1878. On March 3, to be precise. Which makes it our national liberation from Ottoman rule. Exactly like your national day on March 25, 1821.» At the time of this conversation, Bulgaria also had a «liberation from fascism day» every September 9, that is when Stalin’s troops marched through the country unopposed and a coalition government was installed, with the Communists having gained complete control by 1946. Today, the NATO candidate state of Bulgaria – whose name derives from the Bulgars, a people of Turkic origin that moved south of the Danube into this region in the seventh century AD – is celebrating the 125th anniversary of one of the most glorious moments in the country’s history. A celebration that coincides with the first visit of a Russian leader, President Vladimir Putin, to Bulgaria in more than 10 years, amid tensions between Sofia and Moscow over US plans to wage war on Iraq. Another Russian, one of the Romanov Russian imperial dynasty, also arrived two days ago, invited by the native nobility. Following the – last – world war, postwar Bulgaria was transformed, with help from Moscow, from a peasant nation of primitive farms into the socialist version of agribusiness. At the end of the prospective war in Iraq, Bulgaria will be «treated more like a NATO member [whatever that means] if the country happens to need any protection.» This was announced last Tuesday after a meeting in Washington between US President George W. Bush and Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg (the same person, King Simeon II, 7 years old at the time, whose regency in 1944 scrambled to forge a separate peace with the Allies). «President Bush said that he stands by his friends,» Saxe-Coburg said, answering a question about the guarantees that Bulgaria, presently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, could expect in case of a war with Iraq. In another meeting in Washington that same past Tuesday, Saxe-Coburg talked with US Secretary of Trade Donald Evans with whom he discussed bilateral economic ties. Bulgaria is actually pulling itself slowly – but very slowly – out of the economic abyss. So Evans arrives today on a visit to Sofia. It has been stridently announced that his talks in Sofia will focus on the ways to promote US investment in the foreseeable future. However, many argue that it will not be easy to make Bulgarians enthusiastic about plans that – with all those war costs and spending, plus endemic corruption – will not save one lev of public money until a remote future. «Why should I care about posterity?» the electors of a democratic Bulgaria will ask, echoing Groucho Marx («What’s posterity ever done for me?»). Meanwhile, as President Bush in Washington praised the Bulgarian prime minister, who is good taste incarnate – and the picture of refinement as well – back home in Sofia, the US Embassy charge d’affaires, Roderick Moore, slammed Bulgarian authorities for failing to bring any corruption cases to court. «The bottom line is that your prosecutors and courts are not forcing corrupt public officials to pay for violating the public trust,» Moore said. It has not been specified whether he was also referring to CD copyright piracy, which is booming in the country, and which the government seems to be tolerating. History lies heavily on the Balkans. Also over the weekend, Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov summoned France’s ambassador, Jean-Loup Kuhn-Delforge and «expressed concern over the emotional statement by French President Jacques Chirac regarding Bulgaria’s position on Iraq,» the presidential office said. «Bulgaria insists on mutual respect between EU members and applicant countries, between big and small states,» Parvanov said. «Pressure by one state on another should not be allowed.» In communist times, Soviet Ambassador Nikita Tolubeyev was known to serve as a kind of proconsul, channeling Moscow’s instructions to Bulgarian officials. Some say that a similar role is now played by US Ambassador to Sofia James Pardew, who accompanied the prime minister to Washington. By serving the Soviets so well, the Bulgarians ended up serving themselves poorly. P.S. The French Embassy last Monday sent minor officials to a reception in Athens for Estonia’s National Day (Estonia is an EU candidate country in favor of US policy on Iraq). It will be thrilling to see what happens tonight at the Bulgarian ambassador’s residence in Palaio Psychico. Suddenly, Bulgaria is more strategically important than Turkey for the attack on Iraq.

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